Miguel Alas Sevillano of the Workplace Project helps a couple seeking to...

Miguel Alas Sevillano of the Workplace Project helps a couple seeking to apply for the Excluded Workers Fund program in Hempstead on Wednesday. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Like many others in the American workforce, Leonardo and Besy of Roosevelt were out of work for months last year during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Leonardo, 36, a construction worker, said even now, work remains slow. His wife, Besy, 25, a house cleaner, said some clients have canceled. Before the pandemic shutdown began in March 2020, she worked five days a week; now she is down to just two days a week, she said.

The bills and debts piled up for the couple, who are expecting their first child in March, they said during a visit last week to the immigrant advocacy group the Workplace Project in Hempstead. There, they sought help filling out an application for the state's Excluded Workers Fund program, which offers financial relief for workers who lost income during the pandemic and did not qualify for federal stimulus money or unemployment benefits.

"Because of the [pandemic], he couldn't work for almost four months. As a result of that, they couldn't pay their rent and other debt that they acquired," said Miguel Alas Sevillano, of the Workplace Project, translating for the couple, who did not give their full names to Newsday because they are in the country without legal permission.

Lawmakers have said the $2.1 billion fund, passed by the Democratic-controlled State Legislature in April, would primarily benefit immigrants living in the country without legal permission. And last week, Gov. Kathy Hochul touted payments going out ahead of schedule.

Hochul announced Sept. 3 that the state Department of Labor had approved more than $850 million in funding to eligible recipients in the first month of the program. Of that amount, $250 million had been dispersed.

The fund provides two tiers of benefits: a maximum, one-time payment of $15,600 for those who meet certain requirements, such as filing a tax return in 2018, 2019, or 2020; or a $3,200 benefit. All applicants have to show proof of New York State residency starting before March 27, 2020.

A state Labor Department spokeswoman said in an email that 99% of applicants are eligible for the $15,600 award. The governor's office announced that since the program's launch Aug. 1, 90,000 applications have been received, of which 50,000 had been approved thus far.

Nassau and Suffolk counties were ranked in the top 10 of New York counties with approved applications, at 4% each. Queens ranked first with 30%.

Tempered praise on LI

Several immigrant advocates on Long Island praised the program but expressed concerns about "barriers" in the application process. A coalition of advocates rallied outside Hochul's Manhattan office Thursday, in an effort to press for program improvements that was coordinated by Make the Road New York, an advocacy group for immigrants and working-class communities.

Speakers cited regional differences in resources available to help applicants, as well as language barriers, noting more needed to be done to help immigrants who speak Haitian Creole or Mandarin, for example.

"I think we want to acknowledge, and are extremely pleased and excited to know funds are being processed and people are receiving them," said Ani Halasz, executive director of Long Island Jobs With Justice.

That was echoed by Nadia Marin-Molina, co-executive director of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, which has a Freeport office. "We are happy that the funds are beginning to flow. And it shows the fact that workers have been applying and been successful. And it shows real need."

Improvements sought from state

They highlighted difficulties, however.

"We’ve been calling for the state to remove some restrictions, like requirements of the employer letter," Marin-Molina said. She said day laborers and domestic workers "who don’t have a steady employer, it’s more difficult to be able to get an employer who’s willing to sign something like that. ... Pay stubs are impossible for workers in the cash economy."

Halasz said a "big concern for Long Island [was] there are many homes and houses that have multiple residents living in those homes occupying bedrooms, so they don’t have proof of residency based on official documents. So we want the [Department of Labor] to allow workers to submit affidavits" attesting to where they live or affidavits from their roommates. "That will actually expand many workers' ability to apply."

In response, the agency said in a statement: "The Department of Labor continues to work closely with advocacy groups to promote and administer the Excluded Workers Fund program, and review regulations based on language agreed to by the legislature. It’s also important to note that these regulations were vetted and approved by the state Attorney General’s office. … We will continue to work collaboratively to identify solutions to expedite the application process for eligible workers."

Halasz added, "We are concerned that the funds will run out faster than anticipated and many other workers will be left out."

Martha Maffei, executive director of Sepa MUJER, which helps Latina immigrants on Long Island, is working with other community organizations to educate immigrants about the fund and help them apply.

She said the agency works to overcome others' fear "of getting into a relationship with the government" because of their undocumented status.

"So many people don’t believe they're going to get the money. So we need to educate them about that," Maffei said.

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